FCS Playoffs: UAlbany vs. South Dakota State Semifinal Preview & Prediction
FCS Playoffs: UAlbany vs. South Dakota State Semifinal Preview & Prediction
UAlbany's landmark 2023 season is just one test away from a National Championship Game berth. The Great Danes face defending champion South Dakota State.
One hurdle remains between UAlbany football and the NCAA Div. I National Championship Game. That hurdle also happens to be the current standard for the entire Football Championship Subdivision.
A dream season for the Great Danes takes them on the road once again for the FCS Playoffs semifinals, when they travel to defending national champion South Dakota State on Dec. 15.
"It's our ninth away game. We've played a full season of away games," UAlbany coach Greg Gattuso said of the team's travels, which included the 30-22 defeat of Idaho in the quarterfinals to advance. "We're kinda used to the drill. The kids don't let it bother them."
On the contrary: In his postgame interview following the win at Idaho on Dec. 9, UAlbany quarterback Reese Poffenbarger said the team's travel all season has been a positive, bringing the Great Danes together.
With treks to Hawai'i; Huntington, West Virginia; up and down the Coastal Athletic Association map; UAlbany now adds Brookings, South Dakota to its list of 2023 destinations. South Dakota State hasn't lost there at its home, Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, since Oct. 23, 2021.
It's a streak the Jackrabbits extended last week at the expense of UAlbany's CAA counterpart Villanova. The CAA co-champion Wildcats gave the reigning national champion Jackrabbits a stiff challenge in gale-force winds, and were within five points deep into the quarterfinal matchup before South Dakota State scored on a 66-yard Isaiah Davis touchdown run.
The 23-12 decision extended South Dakota State's on-going winning streak to 27 games. UAlbany will look to end that run in the semifinals.
In its quarterfinal win, hit right at its season average, 30.4 points per game, against an Idaho defense that allowed more than 23 points just once in the previous seven outings. Poffenbarger added to his FCS-best passing touchdown total with three against the Vandals, all to Brevin Easton.
Poffenbarger's up to 36 passing scores on the season, while Easton ranks third in the nation with 13 touchdown receptions. There's plenty more to the UAlbany passing attack, however, with Easton leading a trio of Great Danes to have caught at least 43 passes so far in 2023.
Julian Hicks has 43 receptions for 744 yards with 11 touchdowns, Marqeese Dietz has 44 receptions for 500 yards and three scores, and running back Griffin Woodell has been an effective option out of the backfield with 31 catches and four touchdowns.
A potential X-factor to watch is Roy Alexander. Alexander missed most of the regular season due to a lower-body injury, but has seen gradual progression since rejoining the lineup Nov. 18 vs. Monmouth.
His four receptions for 43 yards at Idaho made for Alexander's most productive outing since he caught six passes and two touchdowns in the season opener against Fordham.
UAlbany's multi-dimensional passing game has worked well in concert with a balanced rushing attack. Woodell went for 98 yards and a touchdown against an outstanding Idaho rush defense last week, and the freshman has 1,000 yards for the season well within reach at 888 coming into the semifinals.
Running effectively will be especially important against South Dakota State's outstanding pass defense — and if the Great Danes face similar weather conditions to those Villanova experienced in the quarterfinals.
A Wildcats offense that has thrived with deep-ball passes struggled to get going in winds exceeding 30 miles per hour. Forecasts for Friday don't call for similar wind, but there is a 50 percent chance of rain, which would similarly put a heavy onus on establishing the run.
South Dakota State
Walter Payton Award finalist quarterback Mark Gronowski combines with the running back Davis — who was frankly worthy of Payton Award consideration in his own right — to give South Dakota State a powerful one-two punch.
Whether it's Gronowski's remarkable passing efficiency, completing almost 68 percent of his attempts with 25 touchdown throws and just four interceptions, or Davis rolling up almost seven yards per carry with 15 touchdowns, the potent SDSU offense starts with an outstanding offensive line.
Seniors Mason McCormick and Garret Greenfield both earned 1st Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference, junior Gus Miller was named to the MVFC 2nd Team, and Evan Beerntsen, another senior, was honorable mention.
Size and experience characterize this group, which has been dominant all season and plays into what may be Friday's most pivotal matchup.
All season long, UAlbany's tenacity up front and ability to get into opposing backfields have been at the forefront of the Great Danes' success. Sacks came at a premium in the quarterfinals, but it was only fitting that AJ Simon and Anton Juncaj teamed up on a game-changing hit (with their line mate, Elijah Hills, making the recovery).
Juncaj's 15 total tackles lead FCS. Simon's 12.5 are tied for third. The duo pace the most effective sack-producing defense in the nation, but also showed in the quarterfinals that the UAlbany front seven can impact a game without racking up sacks at a high clip.
The Great Danes limited the Vandals to 107 rushing yards — more than their FCS-leading yield of 78.1 per game, but well below Idaho's typical output.
Juncaj and Simon leading pursuit into the backfield contributes to UAlbany stymying the run, while Buck Buchanan Award finalist linebacker Dylan Kelly's pursuit of ball-carriers has set the tone for the Great Danes' all-around ball-hawking.
South Dakota State
Physical, disciplined and talented in all phases: That's the South Dakota State defense.
Opponents have scored just a little more than 10 points per game against the Jackrabbits this season, struggling to establish the run or throw with much efficiency. SDSU allows only 94.7 rushing yards per game with a 3.3-per carry output.
Perhaps even more incredible, opponents average only 5.8 yards per pass attempt against the Jackrabbits. Tucker Large and Dyshawn Gales have both been outstanding for the SDSU secondary, each earning All-MVFC recognition.
Veterans Cade Terveer and Jason Freeman both landed on the MVFC 1st Team for their efforts leading the Jackrabbits front seven. The tone SDSU sets on defense combined with its physicality on offense wears on opponents, as the Jacks prove effective at beating teams into submission as opposed to relying on big plays through takeaways.
Not to suggest the Jackrabbits don't create turnover opportunities, though: They've garnered 22 takeaways on the season, 19th-most in FCS.
A 45-yard Matthew Durrance punt return for a touchdown completely flipped South Dakota State's quarterfinal win over Villanova just before halftime. The play put the Jackrabbits ahead of the Wildcats for good, and was the highlight of a day that SDSU dominated special teams.
The Jacks' first two offensive scores both came on short fields as a result of special teams: the first, a Hunter Dustman field goal after a net four-yard punt, and the second a Gronowski touchdown pass to Jaxon Janke to cap a 62-yard drive, started when Villanova's kickoff to open the second half went out of bounds.
SDSU has four blocked kicks for the season, averages almost 16 yards per punt return, and 22.7 yards per kickoff return. Meanwhile, the Jackrabbits have limited opponents to 16.8 yards per kickoff return and all of 2.6 yards per punt return.
UAlbany gave up returns of 73 yards in the punting game and 55 on a kickoff return to Idaho's speedy Jermaine Jackson, but the Great Danes effectively altered their approach in the second half to kick away from Jackson. How UAlbany attacks special teams against an SDSU bunch that thrives in all phases of that game could decide Friday's semifinal.
Does the dream season continue with what would be undoubtedly the biggest win in UAlbany football history? The Jackrabbits have been unbeatable for two years, their only loss since the beginning of the 2022 season coming against Big Ten Conference foe Iowa in a game SDSU controlled.
South Dakota State's methodical and physically imposing style makes for a mismatch against virtually all comers. Add home-field advantage, and the Jackrabbits are an especially tough out.
But UAlbany comes in having defied expectations all season. The Great Danes were picked to finish 11th in the CAA and not only claimed a share of the conference championship, but routed both of its co-holders of the title.
UAlbany has flourished on the road and been able repeatedly to play its game against different styles of opponent. South Dakota State marks the ultimate test, but competing for a national championship means stacking up against the best.
Expect a nail-biter in Brookings.
FINAL SCORE: South Dakota State 20, UAlbany 17
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